The Why and What of Everything - The Reykjavik Grapevine

The Why and What of Everything

The Why and What of Everything

Published June 30, 2006

If everyone in China jumped off a chair at the same time, would it cause an earthquake?
There’s a question you’d like to answer. Or perhaps you’d like to know what causes the Northern Lights to dance across the sky or what becomes of all the gas balloons that fly up in the air on Independence Day? Or perhaps you are just curious about all kinds of everyday matters, dying for some explanations? In that case, log on to the Icelandic Science Web at: www.why.is, and you’ll find the answer to these questions and more.
The Science Web was founded in 2000 when Reykjavík was among the Culture Cities of Europe program. The University of Iceland took part in the project and why.is was one of its contributions, established to raise social awareness of science for the public. Whoever had burning questions could log onto the web, pose a question and receive an answer suited for the general reader. At that point answers existed only in Icelandic, but between 2004-05 the idea of making the site accessible in English came up. “The reason we started translating answers to English is that we know there are a lot of people around the world who are interested in Old Norse literature and history and in Icelandic nature, geology and so on and we wanted to contribute to the cultivation of this interest,” says Þorsteinn Vilhjálmsson, founder of Vísindavefurinn and professor in history of science and physics at the University of Iceland.
No one could have predicted the popularity this project would gain. Now in its sixth year running the Science Web has over 500 specialists working in different fields answering questions regarding everything from history, literature, geology and philosophy to mathematics, biology and economics, among other subjects, and is educational for readers of all ages. With up to 20-40 queries received per day and 14,000 individual users every week, the web has established a reputation for being both fun and informative and is now among the most visited websites in Iceland.
“We now have around 6,000 answers at the Icelandic website, so many of the questions we get have already more or less been answered,” Þorsteinn explains when asked how they prioritise questions. “Several factors decide which of the others will get an answer in the end: the scientific relevance of the question, the number of repetitions of the question from different visitors, the availability and willingness of an author to answer it and the sustained interest of the inquirer.”
The English site now boasts about 100 answers, mostly aimed at introducing Iceland, its language and nature and Vikings to foreigners with questions like: Do elves exist? What is Iceland’s smallest animal? How many words are there in Icelandic for “the devil”?
“When we started to translate answers to English the emphasis was mostly on Icelandic and Old Norse matters, but the answers already published do not give a complete picture since we hope to get funds to expand this part of the website,” Þorsteinn continues. “Questions in foreign languages are mainly in English and are not numerous yet. A part of them come from Icelanders, Icelanders abroad and immigrants, and another part from people without any relations to the country. As yet, these questions are not especially related to Icelandic matters.”
As you can see the web opens up a great place for curious visitors to spend hours at a time, scrolling up and down for answers to almost everything in the universe. Log on to www.why.is and start your enlightenment.

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